Review: ‘The Undercurrent’ by Paula Weston

Eighteen-year-old Julianne De Marchi is different. As in: she has an electrical undercurrent beneath her skin that stings and surges like a live wire. She can use it—to spark a fire, maybe even end a life—but she doesn’t understand what it is. And she can barely control it, especially when she’s anxious.

Ryan Walsh was on track for a stellar football career when his knee blew out. Now he’s a soldier—part of an experimental privatised military unit that has identified Jules De Marchi as a threat. Is it because of the weird undercurrent she’s tried so hard to hide? Or because of her mother Angie’s history as an activist against bio-engineering and big business?

It’s no coincidence that Ryan and Jules are in the same place at the same time—he’s under orders to follow her, after all. But then an explosive attack on a city building by an unknown enemy throws them together in the most violent and unexpected way.

I finished The Undercurrent more than a week ago, but I’ve been caught up with other things and haven’t been able to sit down and review it before now. It’s a shame, because this book is amazing and you all need to hear about it so you can run out and buy yourselves a copy. (Or you could just skip the rest of the review, trust me, and head to the shops now. Go on, I won’t mind.)

Paula Weston is one of my most favourite discoveries from the last few years. I’ve raved about her Rephaim series plenty of times here on the blog, and I was very excited (and also a little embarrassed) when I discovered she’d released this gem a few months ago and I hadn’t heard about it. Needless to say, it went to the top of my TBR pile.

The Undercurrent is a futuristic thriller, set a few decades from now in a dystopian Australia where corporations’ influence has grown to the point that they are the driving force behind government policy. Australia has a developed a nuclear power plant and takes the world’s nuclear waste to store nearby (currently Australia has/does neither of those things). The army is available for hire by big corporations. GMO crops and genetically modified sheep are so pervasive that banks won’t provide hardship loans to farmers who refuse to grow them, and the most powerful GMO-pushing corporation, Paxton Federation, is on the brink of getting legislation through parliament that would effectively make it illegal not to grow their crops.

Enter Jules, daughter of former investigative journalist and resistance activist Angie De Marchi, whose body generates vast amounts of electricity she can’t control. She is notorious for having burned down a school building when she was 16, something that was an accident but that people assume was done at her mother’s behest. Since then, her mother has been blackmailed by an unknown individual to cut off her contact with the country’s leading resistance group, the Agitators — which Angie founded years before after her soldier husband was killed defending a PaxFed facility overseas.

When someone starts trying to kill Jules, things get complicated really fast.

I loved Jules, who has spent her entire life trying to bottle things up and maintain control of herself in a way that reminds me a little of Elsa from Frozen, but with more, erm, explosive consequences. Her mother, Angie, is fierce, stubborn, pig-headed, and in the centre of the action — not at all your stereotypical maternal mother figure or absent YA parent. Ryan, the studly soldier and love interest, struggles with his father’s disapproval of his decision to enlist. And Voss, Ryan’s commanding officer, is stoic, determined to complete his given task and more clued in to what’s really going on than anyone else. All these characters have chapters from their points of view, and we get to know them all quite well.

Paula Weston writes a fast-paced story, and this one is no exception. There’s a corporate conspiracy, layers and layers of scheming, a formerly peaceful protest group that has strayed into acts of terrorism, and farmers against the wall because they refuse to grow GMO crops. There is also a realistic romance, which is my favourite kind!

The other thing I liked was that PaxFed wasn’t purely an evil mega-corporation and, in some (fairly limited) ways, this dystopian world is a better place than ours. While PaxFed is no doubt motivated by profits, the reason for their GMO push (at least ostensibly) is the realistically achievable goal of ending world hunger. Electric cars are a reality and petrol-guzzling engines have been banned. Desalination plants have addressed some of Australia’s water-shortage problems, at least for those that can afford to take advantage of them. It’s these glimpses of the good coming out of the bad that make this world feel more realistic.

The Undercurrent has been marketed as young adult (because Australian publishers don’t seem to do the new adult category), but I wouldn’t recommend it for readers under 15 or 16. This is partly because of the content being a little more mature (for example, there is some swearing, a sweet sex scene, some drug references, and discussion of suicide), but also because the world and story are quite complex and take some following.

The Undercurrent a stand-alone novel, which makes me sad as I would have loved more of these characters. But if you want to try Paula Weston’s work and aren’t prepared to commit to a four-book series just yet, this is definitely the book for you.

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